Back in biblical times, Israelites would come to the great Temple three times a year, in the fall, and at the beginning and end of spring, corresponding to the festivals of Sukkot (now upon us), Passover, and Shavuot. The commandment was to “appear at God’s appointed place and celebrate – three times a year.” (Ex. 23:17).
What if that is enough? I have said from the pulpit on Yom Kippur that “if you are here today as your once a year, please go home and come back on Sukkot.” I meant it then, and still do. If your once a year is this heavy, often guilt laden burden, that is a tough nut to crack. Come back on Sukkot, better, come at the end of Sukkot, for Simchat Torah – there is dancing, and if you’re into it, drinking too. Plus, there is nature, and guests, and food. Yom Kippur has fasting.
Of course, we are the not the people of the Bible, the “People of the Book.” Rather, we are “the People of the Rabbinic Interpretation of the Book.” The rabbis who brought us our Judaism emphasized daily practice just as much as milestone moments designed after these pilgrimage holidays. To be sure, there is great power in the everyday.There is structure and meaning in taking note of the miraculously ordinary. Nonetheless, there is obviously great power in the extra-ordinary.
Imagine going to see your favorite musician or band. The last great concert I went to was a Soundgarden concert. When the boys cut their guitar chords and let the reverb ride out for a full 5 min. it was, fairly literally, a religious experience. Would it feel the same if I went to hear them every week? Every day? Three times a day?
By analogy I am suggesting that rabbis and religious leaders need to distinguish the purpose of religious experiences. Some moments are for the well initiated, the regulars, the ones who feel comfortable in the service, any service. These people often enough have a sense of the divine in what others might perceive as ordinary (sitting, standing, reading). When some people try and connect this way and fail, they come away with a sense of “I guess I don’t read meaningfully enough, or sit powerfully enough, or I don’t sway with book in hand well enough.”
But there are other moments, ecstatic moments, that are created with music, with dance, with a good old-fashioned “happening” that draw on the power of the crowd, on swaying together, eating together, and just being together that is transformative. For many Jews who connect deeper in this manner, I am wondering out loud: Maybe three times a year is enough?
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).
At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”
Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”
The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”
I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.
But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.
The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays. The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.
I just got back from a weekend “family camp” retreat. One of the most remarkable aspects of the experience was that not one of my three children, over the course of 72 plus hours, asked to watch tv or play on my iphone. It wasn’t because the camp’s programming was so stellar; in fact, rain and frigid weather reduced the planned programming substantially. What occupied my children’s attention was far simpler: the sheer joy of being around a bunch of other children their age. It didn’t seem to matter whether the context was meals, playing sports, or just hanging out. They simply reveled in being together all the time.
Jewish children, like many American children today, lead lives that are highly programmed. From sports to academics to religious school, our children often have extra-curricular commitments every day of the week. The medical academy has made it clear by now that we are harming our children’s development by reducing free play in favor of all this extra-curricular programming. But I wonder, as I look out at dwindling religious school attendance and vastly reduced affiliation rates, if we are missing the boat in our outreach efforts as Jewish institutions by not providing enough contexts for some type of Jewish social free play. The Conservative synagogues (including my own) that I know about tend to prioritize teaching our students Hebrew and some basic Jewish literacy in the limited time we have with our students. But maybe, instead of having religious school become one of several week-long extra-curricular activities, what we need to do is figure out how to bring the Jewish camp ethos into our religious schools and other institutions of outreach. Or, to put it somewhat more controversially, what if USY, Bnai Brith, NIFTY, and other Jewish youth organizations are more important than our religious schools altogether? Maybe, instead of focusing on getting our children into synagogue, we should concentrate on getting them together with other local Jewish youths and just letting them hang out within the context of some general Jewish program or context?
I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am curious to hear your thoughts about how we might be able to develop a camp-like culture within our Jewish institutions the other 10 months of the year. Family camp and summer camp are great, but they are only the tip of the iceberg of what we might be able to accomplish when it comes to developing positive Jewish identity. The glee on my children’s faces this past weekend is something I hope and pray we can replicate on a community-wide level, transforming Jewish education from a (bi)weekly chore into a true opportunity for engagement and excitement.
In my last article I wrote about the need for a renaissance of mission-driven rabbis. I quoted from the powerful words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm given at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in Manchester, England in 1968. I have received a lot of positive feedback on the notion that the traditional American synagogue needs an infusion of rabbis driven by a passion motivated by a compelling mission that sustains their work. In the words of Rabbi Lamm, the time has come for rabbis to reclaim the “role of rabbanim in the grand tradition.”
Another dimension to the growth of the synagogue community is what I call a “generosity of spirit.” This characteristic is so important and fundamental that it rests as the ultimate bedrock of all successful communities. A community is at its simplest a collection of individuals sharing experiences together. Communities can be further solidified by shared purpose and mission. The people in these communities invariably spend considerable time with each other in ways that individuals don’t spend with other people outside of their communities of choice. There is a lot of rubbing shoulders in the life of community.
It is this regular rubbing of shoulders that can contribute to the total breakdown of the community if a generosity of spirit does not exist. What is generosity of spirit? The Psalmist in Chapter 51, Verse 14 beseeches God to let “a generous spirit sustain me.” Ruach Nadivah – Generosity of Spirit is cast as intrinsic to the sustenance of life. A generosity of spirit is being ready to suspend judgment and accusation in the face of perceived slight and insult and maintain an open heart. This sounds simple but it takes a lot of intentional work to cultivate within the context of community.
Why did that person not say hello to me? How come that person missed the kiddush I sponsored this week? Why doesn’t the rabbi care enough about me to call me when I was ill? How could those parents let their children run wild through the Sanctuary? That person is so rude to forget to wish me a happy birthday today.
Distrust. Suspicion. Quickness to judge. Contempt. Anger. Indignation. These are all indications of a community that has a breakdown in generosity of spirit. For each one of those scenarios and the multitude of others that manifest in synagogue community, there are a range of possible reasons to explain each and every one of them. The assumption that it was meant as an affront against me and the accumulation of that sentiment amongst many people over an extended period of time absolutely obliterates the bedrock of healthy community.
People do not seek to join communities that are rife with distrust, contempt, anger and indignation. People join communities that are slow to judge others, filled with warmth and caring for each and every member. How do we further cultivate those traits in our synagogue communities? I believe with a lot of patience, a bit of forcefulness and determination.
Patience is required with the people who have developed over a period of time the traits of distrust and indignation because it takes a lot of self-reflection and inner work to build a healthy and positive attitude. It is just as important to not become indignant at those who are slow to change positively. A bit of forcefulness is required because if the community does not react against signs of a breakdown of generosity of spirit that breakdown can easily worsen and spread very quickly. Determination is necessary because even if at times it can feel like changing ingrained habits is impossible, we must nonetheless forge ahead and persevere. It is not impossible and it can be done and with enough determination we can make it so.
When we create synagogues bursting and overflowing with generous spirits we will have developed powerful models of a world redeemed amidst the world that is. Communities that demonstrate trust, respect and slowness to judge each person within that community present a picture of a humanity the way we should be all the time everywhere. “Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation; and let a generous spirit sustain me.” The joy of God’s salvation can ultimately be fully realized when we are sustained by generous spirits.
I was recently in an awkward social situation. My husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of friends along with third couple whom we didn’t know. As introductions began, I asked the new acquaintances where they live. I mentioned that I know their town pretty well. “How?” they wondered. I explained that many members of our synagogue live in that town. They asked which synagogue we were from and that launched them into a long discussion of their experience in synagogue life. I assumed from this conversation that they knew that I am a rabbi, but soon learned that I was wrong.
The couple shared lots of reactions to things their rabbi and cantor (but mostly the rabbi) had recently done, and their critique was expansive. It wasn’t an angry conversation, but more like banter about their disagreements with their clergy. I mostly listened, but when the reflections circled back to one particular grievance regarding a change in the synagogue worship, I said that surely that change had been vetted with the leadership and the board (meaning –it is not only the rabbi’s responsibility.) Our dinner companion then turned to me and said, “What…. are you a synagogue president or something?” I said, “No, I’m a rabbi.”
This created some confused and embarrassed sputtering and apologies for gossiping about rabbis. I diffused it quickly by telling them I was amused by the conversation, even as I wondered to myself what my congregants would be saying about what I had done that day as they sat at dinner parties. I laughed it off and the subject was quickly changed (for a while at least, until the “Well, you’re a rabbi, can I ask you….? started up.)
I could have been critical. I could have told them about about the challenge of leadership of the American synagogue, especially during changing times. I could have chided their criticisms as selfish. I could have cited Jewish texts that command us to refrain from speaking ill of others and gossiping. But none of those responses would have been constructive. Instead, I chose to support them for taking sufficient interest in their congregation as to want to talk about it.
While gossip can indeed be breed negativity and divisiveness, I chose to see this exchange not so much as about gossip as being like a Talmudic exchange. In the Talmud, the rabbis who shaped the Judaism that we inherited speak in a discourse of disagreement, often quoting their colleagues to support their own positions. It is in the dialogue that Jewish ideas, values, beliefs and practices take shape. The Talmud sets the stage for a long tradition of questioning and critical thinking.
One of the greatest gifts left us by Talmudic sages was the Passover Seder. They managed to create a very structured ritual that is designed to be an open educational experience. They understood that the best way to learn is to ask questions and vigorously discuss ideas and lessons from every angle. They wanted us to enter the world that they modeled for us, where dialogue, debate and personal opinions open worlds of possibilities for growth.
There is an enigmatic story in the Haggadah, the book we use for the Seder. It tells of a group of rabbis sitting up all night learning — discussing meanings and ideas. Historical analyses aside, this story is so cryptic that we have no choice but to wonder out loud, “What were they doing?” “What were they thinking?” “What does this have to do with me?”
If we skip this opportunity for open discussion, we have missed the point of the seder. Just as our dinner acquaintance wanted a forum for discussing the “what was he thinking?” question relating to their rabbi, and no doubt these conversations happen in many a synagogue parking lot, our sages gave us a nod of encouragement to engage.
I hope we use the dinner table of the Seder to banter, to discuss, to question, and to think. “What were they thinking?” becomes “What are we thinking?” It’s more than entertaining; it’s about meaning. I wish you an engaging, enlightening, meaningful Pesach/Passover.
My husband spent Sunday afternoon at a NY Jets football game with his buddy, Dan. He told me about a scene two rows in front of them that left him shaking his head. A dad who was accompanied by two young sons watched the game intently while his younger son (maybe six years old or so) stood on his seat facing the stadium audience with his back to the field for three quarters of the game. While the stadium entertainment crew tried to whip up the crowd with cheers and chants, the child raised his arms to the crowd to be a combination cheerleader/conductor. He was having a great time.
My husband reported that the dad was both tolerant and amused by this activity. Yet, my husband wondered: why did the dad bother bringing the kid, when he wasn’t really engaged by the football game?
I viewed this differently. It didn’t matter that the child wasn’t watching football – his experience was fun. He will come away with a warm feeling of having spent a fun day with his dad, and memories of the stadium being a welcoming place to spend a Sunday afternoon.
So it goes in life. We each find our way through the experiences that are imposed on us as children through the pathways most appealing to our tastes and interests. We may not necessarily do or learn what is expected of us, but as long as we can have compelling experiences, we come away with warm and positive memories. On a certain level it doesn’t matter if we didn’t fit into the pre-assigned pegs, as long as we were comfortable and conversant enough in the experience to come back for more.
It seems to me that this reflects on our model of Jewish education. We are so content-driven; we can miss the value of memory and experience. For all kinds of good reasons, the typical Jewish school endeavors to “educate” our students with as much Jewish knowledge as we can cram into the short space of time we are given with our students.
But maybe that model of Jewish learning is backwards. What if, instead of assuming that enough Jewish knowledge will secure our children’s Jewish future, we focus on the quantity and quality of their Jewish experiences? And what if we conceived of those experiences not as “pegs” into which we must squeeze each learner to make them come out “right,” we observe them to see what adventures they can find in the experiences we enable for them.
So what if the child stands on the chair backwards and cheers with the crowd and doesn’t watch football? Perhaps he will settle down to watch the game when he is older, and he is happily at home in the stadium because of his early experiences. Perhaps he may not even come to love football like his dad, but he will carry forever the warm memory of being with his dad on those cold fall game days.
So what if a child’s favorite part of being in synagogue is the experience of being part of a community that is engaging and fun? As children grow older they can settle into their seats to learn the why’s and how’s of Jewish behaviors. Maybe they won’t grow up to want to be engaged in all the same ways as their parents, but they will be at home and comfortable and happy enough to want to learn more.
We’ve had this debate for years – how to do Jewish education in America. But all the studies support what this child at the football game demonstrated – experience matters. And the learner is central to the experience. Good Jewish camps provide this opportunity. So should our other vehicles for Jewish learning.
Last week I participated with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) in their annual conference. We spent half a day on the Lower East Side of New York City doing a geo-locating game, using a new iPhone app that guides participants through a walking tour of the historical sites of the area, while enjoying the tastes and landscapes of the neighborhood. Visionary educator David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project gave us a window into new possibilities outside the classroom setting. We spent a morning learning at Behrman House about the use of an online classroom to create fun, learner-driven experiences.
It’s the tip of the iceberg – we need so much more. But if the child who cheers with the crowd loves the stadium experience, and the child who dines on Gus’s pickles and Yonah Schimmel’s knishes tastes the history of Jewish immigration and leaves wanting more, we’ve done an awful lot. And that’s a good bit more than happens in most Jewish education classrooms.